How should the shape of your grade distribution change the way you teach?

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I’ve received a number of comments about one of the recommended reads from last Friday. It was about the New York Times op-ed piece, about why people shouldn’t grade on a curve. And then, I asked, who does that anymore? The answer is: a lot of people. In addition to the comments on the post, I’ve gotten some emails and chatted with a few people (here while I’m at the International Congress of Entomology in Orlando, Florida).

One friend is in a department in which all faculty are rigorously required to conform their grades to a particular distribution, and they can’t submit their grades unless they follow this practice. Continue reading

Parade of professors or solo scholar?

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There are two basic models for teaching courses and the norm varies a lot depending on the type of ecology course. A single professor was responsible for the majority of classes I took as an undergraduate. However, these days the courses I’m involved with are done by a series of professors for particular subtopics. The contrast has me thinking about the pluses and minuses of these approaches. Continue reading

What are office hours for?

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What do you think office hours are for?

Office hours are drop-in* hours for students to see their professors. How should you spend this time?

If you don’t have students in your office, then you should probably be writing. Because we always should probably be writing, right? Or analyzing. Or doing a weekly browse of tables of contents. Or something else productive. If you’re me, you should be cleaning your office.

But let’s say students appear** for office hours, how are they supposed to be used? Here are some reasons students visit: Continue reading

The case for open book exams

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In the sciences, most exams are a closed-book affair. Is this a good thing?

Open_book_nae_02On some tests, I’ve allowed students a 3×5 card, or a one page “cheat sheet.” This is usually met with relief, or joy, or gratitude. When I tell students that they can bring in their textbook for the exam, they get even more relieved.

I might say, “Don’t be so happy, because this just raises the bar for what I’m asking on the exam.” But then, my students say that they feel like it’s not useful for them to have to memorize stuff. And they would prefer solving problems and applying information in novel ways. Even if memorizing stuff is important, it causes a lot of anxiety. Continue reading

There are many pathways to becoming a great teacher

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I’ve seen a lot of great teachers in the classroom. And they all teach differently from one another.

So, to become a great teacher, you don’t have to follow a set of prescribed steps. If someone is telling you that a certain teaching approach is required to be great, then skepticism is warranted. You can be a great teacher by using an approach that is all your own. (You can also use your own approach and be a nightmare. Your mileage may vary.)

SimpleTricks

Continue reading

Why I avoid lecturing

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Academic freedom is glorious. Despite pronouncements to the contrary, university faculty — including most contingent faculty — enjoy tremendous freedom in what we teach and how we teach it. Most professors teach however the hell they choose to teach.

Academic freedom enables change, but resists rapid change. Faculty have the liberty to stand aside as change happens. We can stand by and snark as fads wash by. We also can fossilize as the landscape truly changes. I think it’s hard, in the moment, to distinguish between a fad and a change in the landscape. Continue reading

There are lots of opportunities for grad students to learn how to teach

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In my last post I complained that grad students don’t generally get taught how to teach in grad school, despite the fact that they are (arguably) there to be trained for a career that requires them to teach. Thanks very much to everyone who commented! As a result of both the comments and getting more information about TA training at my current university, I’ll now write about how there are in fact a lot of opportunities for grad students to learn how to teach. You just have to put a bit of effort into going out and finding them. Continue reading

16 things to consider as you assemble your syllabus

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  1. Do you tell students how long it will take for you to respond to emails?
  2. Do you have clear-cut consequences for academic misconduct such as cheating and plagiarism? Do you know exactly what you plan to do when you find misconduct? (Here is how I deal with it.)
  3. Is your course designed to minimize the probability of cheating?
  4. Are you offering extra credit? If you are, do all students have equal opportunity to get the extra points, considering that different students have different schedules outside of class time? (Maybe extra credit isn’t a good idea.)
  5. Have you ever changed the date of an exam from the one on the syllabus? Be sure to put in print whether or not an exam date is a firm promise or just a guesstimate; students schedule around these dates.
  6. Is your grading scheme designed so that it is unambiguous, fair, and minimizes student stress (and in general make your life easier) ?
  7. Do you have a very clear-cut policy on laptops and phones? Many people have phone addiction issues and the learning environment is ruined if you don’t deal with it respectfully.
  8. Are you okay with students using earlier editions of the textbook, and is this on the syllabus? Students often ask or wonder because current editions are so expensive and typically are very similar to previous editions.
  9. If a student misses a class that has an assignment turned in or a quiz or exam, does the student know exactly what will happen? Is it possible to design your grading scheme so that accidentally missing a class will not be a personal disaster for the students? Could you design an assignment policy so that nobody will feel compelled to invent a dead grandparent?
  10. Do you include participation points? If so, are these points administered in an unbiased and transparent way so that the students will be able know their exact score at the end of the semester without having to guess? If not, your participation policy is too subjective and unfair.
  11. When students turn in written assignments, will they know the specific criteria upon which these will be evaluated? If you have expectations for writing, could you put the criteria for the rubric in your syllabus. Grading writing without a rubric is unfair to students as they won’t know what you are expecting in the written assignment before doing the work.
  12. You’re going to get grade disputes, even if you say that you do not entertain grade appeals. Do you have a clear policy about grade appeals on your syllabus? Do your policies and practices deter unreasonable appeals?
  13. Is it possible to assign grades to students not based on scores that they earn on assignments, but instead on what competencies they are able to show by the end of the semester?
  14. Some students really love getting their grades through the course management system (Blackboard/WebCT/Moodle/whatever). Do you specify in your syllabus how you use the online course system?
  15. Do any disabled students — including those with a learning disability — know that you’re prepared to provide accommodations for them? Some students can be anxious that faculty might not be receptive and going beyond institutionally required boilerplate can be helpful.
  16. Is there anything in your syllabus that would look bad on the internet? It’s now a very small world.

 

 

*Note: now that buzzfeed is starting to gain the appearance of something like journalism once in a while, I’ve decided that the title of this piece of writing is journalistic enough for today.

Dear students, a member of the class asked…

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This is a post by Catherine Scott.

I am TAing a first year introductory Ecology/Evolution course this semester, and the laboratory exam is coming up on Tuesday. I’m spending a lot of time this weekend emailing the entire class list messages that start, “Dear students, a member of the class asked…” I go on to list the (anonymized) question, and my answer. I copied this technique from a great professor I had for an invertebrate zoology course. As an extremely shy undergraduate student who never once went to an office hour or emailed a professor or TA with a question, I really appreciated this approach. Continue reading

Efficient teaching: improving student writing ability

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Last week’s post was about university writing requirements that fall ludicrously short of their goal, like how this ferret falls short of his goal:

Let’s assume two facts:

  1. We should expect good writing of our students.
  2. Good writing comes from lots of experience with writing.

Which results in the following inference:

It is incumbent on us to require lots of writing from students in our classes. Continue reading

Should ecologists teach writing?

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I could start this post with a back-in-my-day story and bemoan the state of student writing today but I think you can probably fill in the blanks without me hashing out a familiar tale*. Sufficed to say for a ecological methods course I team teach, we’re finding that the quality of writing from the students is poor. The course includes a major project where the students design and execute a survey for insects, birds or plants and culminates in a written report in scientific paper style. Continue reading

Dead grandmothers no more: the equal accommodation classroom

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Let me tell two anecdotes to put the Dead Grandmother Syndrome in perspective.

I remember when I was a student in Evolutionary Biology in my junior year of college. Right before the midterm, I got really sick with the flu. I felt like hell and doing normal things seemed like a physical impossibility. If I took the miderm, I would have gotten a horrible score, only because I was so darn sick. Continue reading

Efficient teaching: Doing active learning an easy way

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Here are a few difficult facts about education in college classrooms:

  1. Lectures don’t work well. People just don’t really learn much from hour-long lectures.
  2. People learn when they discover ideas on their own.
  3. People learn best when working with peers.
  4. It’s a hell of a lot easier to just explain something to someone than to set up a situation in which this person can figure it out for themselves
  5. It takes a lot longer for a person to figure something out than it takes for you to just explain it to them.

I suppose you can take issue with some of these facts and argue that they’re not true facts. But just as climate scientists are mighty darn sure about anthropogenic warming trends, education researchers seem to be just as sure about this these facts. I let them take my word for it about ecology and evolution, and I’ll take their word for it about education.

And this is a problem, because it means that what a lot of us have been doing appears to not just suboptimal but downright inadvisable. Continue reading

History will not repeat itself (i.e. lessons learned as a first-year faculty member)

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By Sarah Bisbing

I survived my first year as a faculty member. In fact, I think I even did pretty well if I consider my student evals and the number of end-of-year hugs received. I’m going to pat myself on the back. Why? Because being a first-year faculty member (or really an any-year faculty member, as far as I can tell) makes you feel like you are in a constant state of fight or flight. I did know what I was getting myself into by starting down the path to tenure, but I also really didn’t have any idea what it would actually feel like. I was exhausted from living in a constant state of undone to-dos and never-ending lists, and I felt a bit like I was drowning. This reality hit me hard about half way through my first year, and I decided that I needed to come up with a better strategy for survival. I thought hard about my experiences to-date as a new professor and came up with my own rules of the game. And, you know what, I think I made some significant strides in managing my time and surviving the uphill battle toward tenure. Continue reading

Charging a cover for lab participation

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I am considering implementing a new policy this fall in the lab portion of my primary course. The short version is: students would need to read/watch certain things before coming to lab that would prepare them for the day’s activity. Before entering the lab classroom, they would be handed a (relatively easy) quiz on those materials. These practices are pretty standard in lab courses, in my experience. Here’s the twist: if a student didn’t get at least a 75% on the quiz, s/he would not be allowed to participate in the lab, and would forfeit all points associated with it.

If you’re like me, your first reaction to that is, “Wo. That’s pretty harsh.” Continue reading

Teaching Challenges: group projects

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Science is a collaborative effort and in essence, more and more of our scientific effort is done in groups. We come up with projects together, divide the labour, and co-write the papers that come out of it. So the idea of the lone scientist, working away in a solitary lab is really something for the movies rather than reality.

In teaching, group projects not only mimic the reality of what happens ‘for real’* but also provide a valuable learning experience for students. If you’re interested in reading more about the benefits of group work here is a start and here and here offer some tips on how to implement group assignments. Continue reading

Field courses: a blessing and a curse

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Since I began my position at Uppsala, my summers begin frantically. Although my teaching load is relatively light, the majority of it comes in the spring just when I am getting ready for my own and my PhD’s fieldwork.

I teach in a course on Ecological Methods. Students learn mainly about sampling and survey techniques for a broad range of organisms but the focus is on birds, insects and plants (for which I’m responsible). The course starts in March and runs until the first week of June (therein lies some of my problems but more on that later). Continue reading

“What’s going to be on the exam?”

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Do you love it when students waste office hours with questions that don’t help them learn? Do you want to cultivate anxious emails from students sent at 3 in the morning?  Do you want your students to wager their grades by guessing what you think is the most important material?

Then don’t tell your students what is going to be on the exam.

It is entirely legitimate for a student to be told the basis of their evaluation. Students take a course, and earn a grade. They should be made aware, as specifically as possible, the foundation for this grade before they do what it takes to earn it. The less they know about the basis of their evaluation, the less fair we are to our students.

The more specific you are about what is on the exam, the happier the students will be. Moreover, specificity gives you control over the material that they will study. I have often heard colleagues frustrated that students aren’t focusing on studying the right material, or asking the right questions while studying. I seriously don’t get these questions from students, and I think that both they and myself are better off for it.

If students ask you what will be on the exam, please don’t reply, “Whatever I think is important.” That just will help the students who are better mind readers. (Which are probably those with a social and cultural background most similar to yourself.)

If students ask you what will be on the exam, please don’t reply, “Everything in the lectures and everything in the chapters.” This vague set of expectations will prevent students from focusing on facts and concepts which are most important, and may lead to some students wasting their time on minutia.

The more vague you are about what will be on the exam, the less control you have over what they study. The worry about the mysterious contents of the exam detracts from learning. Our value in the classroom isn’t our content knowledge itself, but our expertise that allows us to parse the useful, meaningful and relevant. Asking the students to master too much information will result in no mastery at all.

Several years ago, I decided that the exam guesswork was a bad thing. Now, I administer three types of exams, all of which are designed to remove guesswork on the part of students:

  • I give students a full list of potential exam questions in advance. I then select a subset of these questions for the exam itself, choosing at random, haphazardly, or with a specific rationale. Here is an example of one, from a non-majors Environmental Biology lecture course.

  • I give students a comprehensive exam preparation sheet, one or two weeks before the exam. I give them a solemn promise that everything on the exam will be covered by one or more items on the review sheet. Sometimes these items are very narrow but other times they could be rather open-ended. But they are never intended to be vague. I tell the students that if any question on the exam isn’t based on one of these review items, then I’ll drop it from the exam. I am also tempted to hand these out at the beginning of the semester, but I call too many audibles to make this a wise choice. Here is an example of one, from the first exam in a biostatistics course. You’ll note that there’s a lot of material on there. I can’t ask questions to cover every one of those items. But I can make sure that students study them all, but also make the scope narrow enough that it is do-able.

  • I can give a take-home exam. I only do this if I’m blessed with a small class. Because are a variety of problems associated with take-home exams, I typically only do this with a small graduate course.

One of the more annoying questions that a student can ask is, “What’s going to be on the exam?” I just have to answer that with a single piece of paper.

Sometimes some students will email me, “What’s the answer to number 8 on the exam prep sheet,” or they’ll write me an answer and ask me how it meets my expectations. I make a point to not evaluate their responses or give them any information, unless I do so for the entire class. I might clarify a question or an item, if a student doesn’t understand the words.  Under all circumstances, I assiduously avoid evaluating providing privileged information for the students who feel more comfortable with approaching me for private studying advice, because that would be unfair to the students who don’t email me. I might send a reply to a question to the entire course.

I always schedule time during a class session prior to the exam so that students can ask me questions about any of the review items. Sometimes this lasts just a few minutes, and sometimes the bulk of the class period. (I do not hold separate reviews outside regular class hours, as I’ve mentioned before.) Usually when students email me a question, I ask them to save it for class, so that everyone can benefit from their question. But most of the review session is me saying, “I’m not going to reteach that entire lesson, but this is the nutshell version.”

The better I construct the exam prep information, the less time we spend in review during class, and the more time students spend studying with each other, which is where the real learning takes place.